Better know a Canadian functionary: the Government Film Commissioner

The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau was set up in 1918 to make propaganda and information films for the Dominion government. In 1939, the National Film Commission, headed by a Government Film Commissioner, was established for the production co-ordination and distribution of the CGMPB’s work, and the two were merged to form the National Film Board of Canada in 1941. The NFB’s mandate was shifted from propaganda to cultural output pursuant to the National Film Act of 1950, which stipulated that henceforth the Government Film Commissioner would also be the head of the NFB.

The Commissioners of the CGMPB were:

Raymond S. Peck (1886-1927), 1918-27.
Cpt. Frank C. Badgley MC (1893-1955), 1927-41.

The Government Film Commissioners have been:

John Grierson (1898-1972), 1939-45. Born in Scotland, Grierson studied the psychology of propaganda under a Rockefeller Research Scholarship at the University of Chicago. As a film critic and filmmaker, Grierson was a father of the documentary film genre – in fact, coined the phrase “documentary film” in 1926 – and was the first head of public relations for the British General Post Office in the 1930s. Grierson more or less single-handedly directed the Canadian propaganda effort in WWII, and closely advised Mackenzie King. He was dismissed in 1945 for suspected Communist sympathies; he was later director of mass communications for UNESCO and controller of films at the UK Central Information Office.

John Ross McLean (1905-84), 1945-50. A preacher’s son from northern Manitoba who earned an M.Litt. from Oxford, it was Ross McLean, in his role as personal secretary to the Canadian High Commissioner to the UK (then Vincent Massey), who recommended that John Grierson become head of the National Film Board. As Commissioner, McLean stood fast against the government’s red-scare attempts to root out Communists in the NFB. He was later head of the film division of UNESCO and research director to the CTRC. McLean’s brother, Allan Grant McLean, was president of the Liberal Party of Canada; Allan’s son, Grant McLean, was a filmmaker and interim head of the NFB from 1966 to 1967.

William Arthur Irwin (1898-1999), 1950-53. W. Arthur Irwin was born in Ayr, ON, served in WWI, went to U of T, and began a long career at Maclean’s magazine. He was the principal architect of the National Film Act of 1950, which removed most direct government control from the NFB. Irwin also moved NFB headquarters from Ottawa to Montreal. Irwin went on to join the Department of External Affairs, serving as High Commissioner to Australia and Ambassador to Mexico, Brazil and Guatemala. His second wife was the poet P.K. Page.

Albert William Trueman OC FRSC (1902-88), 1953-57. A Nova Scotian, Albert Trueman earned an MA from Oxford and was president of the University of Manitoba and the University of New Brunswick. He was later a director of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Guy Roberge (1915-91), 1957-66. Born in Mégantic County in the Eastern Townships, Roberge earned a law degree from the Université de Laval, then went into journalism and corporate law. He served as an advisor to the  Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (a.k.a. the Massey Commission) and was the Liberal MNA for Lotbinière from 1944 to 1948. As Commissioner, the NFB employees unionized and production ended on Canada Carries On, a series of propaganda shorts that began in WWII. Roberge also laid most of the groundwork for the founding of the Canadian Film Development Corporation. He was later Agent-General for Quebec in London.

Grant McLean CM (1921-2002), 1966-67 (acting)

Hugo McPherson (1921-now), 1967-70. A native of Sioux Lookout, ON, McPherson went to the University of Manitoba, UWO and U of T, and lectured on media theory in a number of universities. He began censoring some more radical French productions as Commissioner; he resigned in frustration over government cuts, and became Chair of Communications at McGill.

Sydney Cecil Newman OC (1917-97), 1970-75. Born in Toronto, Newman was offered a job as a designer at Disney Studios, but couldn’t get a work visa, so he became a film editor at the NFB during the War. He was Supervising Director of Features, Documentaries and Outside Broadcasts for CBC when it went into television in 1952, and Newman was responsible for the first TV broadcast of a CFL game. In 1958, Newman was hired as Head of Drama for Britain’s Associated Broadcasting Company, where he created the popular spy series The Avengers; He was then poached by the BBC to become their Head of Drama in 1962, where he greenlit a sci-fi series called Doctor Who. Newman was also responsible for coming up with the character of the Doctor, and for making the TARDIS “bigger on the inside”.

As Film Commissioner, Newman repaired the NFB’s strained relationship with the CBC. He also founded Studio D in 1974, dedicated to work by women filmmakers. He was later Chief Creative Consultant to the Canadian Film Development Corporation, and in 1986 was offered the job of executive producer of Doctor Who, turning it down over disagreements with Jonathan Powell, Head of Drama at the BBC.

André Lamy (1932-2010), 1975-79. A Montreal filmmaker, Lamy was Sydney Newman’s right hand man in the NFB’s French production department. As Commissioner, Lamy improved The NFB’s French division. He later returned to filmmaking.

James de Beaujeu Domville (1933-now), 1979-84. Domville was born in Cannes, France, and earned a BCL at McGill. He was then heavily involved in the theatre, serving as Director-General of the National Theatre School of Canada. He resigned as Commissioner over disagreements with the government.

François N. Macerola (1942-now), 1984-88. Macerola was a Montreal lawyer before being appointed as director of French programming at the NFB in 1973. As Commissioner, he had to answer to the Senate for historical inaccuracies in the life of WWI ace William Bishop in the NFB’s 1982 docudrama The Kid Who Couldn’t Miss. After leaving the NFB, Macerola worked in film and television production, and was head of the legal department of Cirque du Soleil.

Joan Pennefather, 1988-94. The first woman to lead the NFB, Pennefather was married to federal Solicitor-General Francis Fox from 1965 to 1977, whom she divorced when he forged the signature of his girlfriend’s husband permitting her to get an abortion. Her time as Commissioner coincided with the NFB’s 50th anniversary ceebrations. Pennefather was later CEO of the National Arts Centre and head of media relations at Imperial Tobacco.

Sandra M. Macdonald, 1995-2001. Born in PEI, Macdonald went to St. FX and U of O before becoming a producer of theatre, film and television, and was appointed Director-General of Television of the CRTC in 1990. At the NFB, she presided over severe budget cuts, which forced the closure of the NFB’s sound stage and film laboratory, the abandonment of Studio D and almost all dramatic productions, and the switch from in-house creative staff in favour of freelancers. After leaving the NFB, Macdonald became president of the Canadian Television Fund.

Jacques Bensimon CM (1943-2012), 2001-06. Born in Morocco, Bensimon wrote, edited, directed and produced for the NFB before being appointed as the managing director of TFO, the French-language public broadcaster of the province of Ontario.

Tom Perlmutter (1948-now), 2007-13. A documentary producer, Perlmutter pushed the NFB toward more mobile and online production.

Claude Joli-Cœur, 2013-now (acting). Joli-Coeur, the Assistant Commissioner, is an entertainment lawyer, formerly in the employ of Telefilm Canada and Astral Media.


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